The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein


Naomi Klein , The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism . New York : Metropolitan Books , 2007 . ISBN 0-8050-8699-4 ( cloth )

Taking a more comprehensive look at the global economy than she did in her first book, No Logo, which helped spur the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Naomi Klein exposes the latest frontier of neoliberalism: disaster capitalism. From the tsunami-swept shores of Sri Lanka to the flooded city of New Orleans to the war in Iraq, Klein examines how natural and human-produced disasters have become virtual capitalist feeding frenzies. In The Shock Doctrine, Klein presents a scathing critique of the history of neoliberalism, which she contends has developed into the noxious phenomenon of disaster capitalism.

Klein begins in Part 1 (Chapters 1 and 2) with a comparison between Ewen Cameron of McGill University and Milton Friedman. She likens Cameron's attempts to use electroshock therapy to cure mental disorders by deprogramming and reprogramming the human brain to Friedman's neoliberal project to deregulate and restructure economies. To be clear, Klein positions Friedman as a shock doctor that first tested his economic theory in the laboratory that Chile provided after the coup of 1973. In Part 2 (Chapters 3–5) Klein discusses the devastating effects of neoliberalization in Chile and Argentina and how state terrorism was an integral part of its spread and implementation. In a rather sequential fashion, in Parts 3 and 4 (Chapters 6–13) Klein presents the formidable advance of neoliberalism through the United Kingdom, Bolivia, Poland, China, South Africa and Russia. Parts 5–7 (Chapters 14–21) are devoted to the move towards war and natural disasters as opportunities for capital accumulation, what she calls “disaster capitalism”. In the case of the war on Iraq, Klein posits that the privatization of Iraqi assets and the United States military have amounted to nothing short of the plundering of both the occupied and occupying countries. Klein concludes with a review of some of the movements that are pushing back against neoliberalism, suggesting that the experience of neoliberal shocks has produced a level of desensitization that allows popular movements to more effectively resist neoliberalism.

Though in some ways difficult to narrow down in the book, “the shock doctrine”, as Klein uses it, is the strategy of using shocks to institute and enforce neoliberal economic policy. The shock doctrine generally follows three phases of shock. The first is a shock that allows neoliberalism to become policy. The reason shocks have been essential for neoliberalization is because neoliberal policies are unpopular and can only be forced through during a severe crisis. This occurs because during a crisis people put greater trust in authority or are disoriented to the extent that they are unable to react properly to challenges to their economic well-being. Central to Klein's thesis is the notion that democracy and neoliberalism are antithetical. Klein calls crises “democracy-free zones—gaps in politics as usual when the need for consent and consensus do not seem to apply”. Once instituted, neoliberal policies cause a second shock by effectively shifting wealth from the poor to the rich, creating widespread poverty in the places the policies are most stringently applied. When the state forces neoliberalism on a population it produces a third shock by using measures that range from union busting to torture and murder.

In the majority of cases it can be argued that there were indeed three sequential shocks that accompanied neoliberalization. The question is whether these shocks were an inherent, integral and essential aspect of neoliberalization. The pattern of the cases Klein discusses suggests that there is an inverse relationship between the strength of the first shock and the strength of the second and third shocks. Powerful countries with long democratic traditions like the UK and the US needed spontaneous shocks as a prerequisite for neoliberalization, whereas countries with little power or weak democratic traditions were more subject to induced shock as a policy of neoliberalism.

There is also the question of the sequential and relatively uniform spread of neoliberalism that Klein presents. From its center with Friedman at the University of Chicago, she describes neoliberalism's expansion to virtually every part of the globe. However, Klein gives limited coverage to the way neoliberalism has shifted and shaped itself to local contexts. This conception of a relatively uniform expansion of neoliberalism is perhaps most ill-fitted in the cases of the UK and the USA. While there is the acknowledgement that popular forces prevented the wholesale adoption of neoliberal policies in the UK and USA, there is also the major omission that the shift towards neoliberalism in the USA and UK was to a certain extent a voluntary undertaking by the population, contradicting one of her central premises: that neoliberalism and democracy are intrinsically opposed.

In regards to an alternative to neoliberalism, Klein displays a high degree of nostalgia for the Keynesian welfare state. While noting that the Keynesian period of economic policy produced high levels of economic growth and improved wage equality, Klein makes no mention of the failure of Keynesianism to resolve the economic downturn of the 1970s. Instead of grappling with this issue, Klein implies that Keynesianism was a healthy economic system and that the neoliberal turn was simply a case of corporate robbery of the general population. Klein presents this economic history as if there was a little economic bump in the road that Friedman tried to take advantage of, rather than a major structural economic downturn. Klein's invoking of neo-Keynesianism raises the question of what type of economic system or systems should we strive to produce. Although developing long-term alternatives to neoliberalism may not currently be the most practical method of resistance, it may give activists, such as Klein, a better sense of what direction to go if the opportunity for fundamental economic change should present itself.